Nhung Dam – A Thousand Fathers
After my father disappeared, Beiahêm was covered with snow for a year. The constant cold formed a layer of ice around people’s hearts, thin and fragile like delicate crystal, and people were scared that if they sneezed their hearts would shatter.
‘Your father won’t believe it,’ my mother said. ‘If we sent him a photo, he wouldn’t believe it. He’d just laugh.’
I looked at the snow. Nothing but snow from the dike to the end of the river.
Mother was right. Even if the greatest painter had turned it into a work of art and it was hanging in a museum. This much snow could only exist in your imagination. Yes, he would have laughed about it: the snow, the cold, what we’d become without him.
Sometimes, very rarely, people left, the lucky ones. But nobody ever came back. Beiahêm was surrounded by inhospitable territory that was almost impassable. There was an observation tower on the dike: beyond the interminable pastures and swamps there was only water and more water.
The first itinerants settled here on the coast of Beiahêm thousands of years ago. That was before countries had names, before the ground stank of human waste, and before the village was overwhelmed by the lamentations of lonely women. On their arrival the path closed behind them, swallowed up by a mass of rampant knotweed. Those first inhabitants forgot to tell their children they had once wandered the countryside. And so it was that the children, with very few exceptions, could not imagine that there was also a way out. For centuries they searched for a passage through, but discovered that the only escape from Beiahêm was over the cold grey sea.
It was a landscape of swamps, where aquatic people emerged from the water like mermaids with nets full of fish they dried to survive the winter. These very first inhabitants spent days and nights hurling clay matting against the banks to raise the ground, but nothing took.
The earth was permanently wet and marshy.
Muddy and sodden.
The people grew disheartened and furrows appeared between their brows, the water soaked their white skin. They knew they were living on unstable ground that was only a temporary aberration, land below sea level. And that this country actually belonged to the sea, the dragons, the firestorms and the sea serpents.
Only by constant unceasing pumping were the people able to gradually secure land under their feet, metre by metre, which they proudly named Beiahêm. Centuries later a new neighbourhood was built on the edge of the village, which moved over as a result. Another century later they built an even more impressive town on the edge of that neighbourhood, and a century after that, reclaimed tracts of magnificent land at the far end of that town, leaving Beiahêm behind on the edge of the world, dangling in the sea, with water stretching away in the distance, seas clashing together and oceans churning.
The people of Beiahêm covered the terp mounds with a layer of asphalt. They erected rows of brick houses, built a basketball court and a supermarket and a primary school, and developed a specific vocabulary that included frequent use of the terms “fucking bitch” and “bloody spaz”. But none of this made the soil any drier or the pools shallower and it didn’t drive off the monsters either. You couldn’t go to school without getting your feet wet. While the rest of the country progressed over the years, Beiahêm’s calendar was stuck in the past.
I was floating in the water among all the kelp, surrounded by all that wonderful green kelp, when I thought, “Snow in March is a peculiar thing.” Because that was how it began a year earlier. I was eleven, stamping the rotten leaves off my shoes every day, shaking the drops of rain out of my hair and avoiding the smell of the rusting power station by giving it a wide berth. I didn’t understand where my parents were from or how they had come here sixteen years earlier to live among these big white people who looked like Vikings, giving me a ridiculous name like Nhung, which sounded more like something you’d eat. Or why my father, freshly labelled and libelled as a newcomer, had left this new home before he’d even had time to get used to it.
Just like that, unannounced.
Snow in the month of March, when my father left.
Encircled by kelp, I stuck my finger in the water and started to draw the first words.
Father had only just left and the misery began. After his departure Crazy Aunty began visiting us more and more often. She snorted and snuffled, sniffing out the lack of a man in the house like a trained bloodhound. It was the story of property being endlessly shuffled back and forth, coins being counted and pieces of land being signed away.
Crazy Aunty was completely ruthless. With a loud voice she threatened to kick our doors in. Mother hid in the pantry, I saw the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. She hissed for me to get away from the window.
‘If you don’t open the door you’ll be sorry,’ I heard Crazy Aunty screech. She scratched the windows with her fingernails.
Just before opening the door, I looked at Mother for a moment, but she didn’t say a word. She was sitting between the sacks of rice and noodles. In her haste she’d forgotten to close the door behind her. Her right leg was quivering against a box of dried shitakes.
The pantry was full of herbs and spices. Ground turmeric, white pepper, lemon grass. If you stamped your feet, dusty clouds of cinnamon and star anise billowed up into your nostrils, so thick and strong it was like standing in the middle of a suffocating sandstorm. The preserving jars filled with thousand-year eggs stared at me with big, white, pupil-less eyeballs. They gave me nightmares. On the bottom shelf I saw the snake writhing in its jar of brown fluid. When Mother asked me to get something out of the pantry for her, I would stare at it for hours trying to work out if it was still alive. The coiled snake with its head pressed against the glass had every colour you could imagine. Once a month Mother drew a small glass of brown sludge from this jar. Then drank it.
‘It’s my medicine,’ she would say. ‘It makes me feel better inside.’ I thought of the pantry as a witch’s larder. A witch’s larder full of magical products. I refused to believe that lizard’s tails or curled up snakes could make me get better.
Crazy Aunty stomped into the room flanked by two men. Each step she took, they took one too. I’d seen them with the Chinese sometimes, the Chinese mafia: they were men with arms and legs of snakeskin, dry and tough; they seemed resistant to snow and never wore winter coats.
The man on Crazy Aunty’s left was big and bald, at least two heads taller than anyone I knew, he had to bend to avoid touching the ceiling. The other man was a good bit smaller, with strands of long greasy hair hanging down in front of his face. They didn’t say a word. They just stood there.
‘Where – is – your – mother?’ Crazy Aunty asked. I didn’t know what to say, but made sure not to look at the pantry.
‘We need to discuss property,’ she said. ‘Where – is – your – mother?’ The big man rolled up his sleeves.
Nobody said a word. I often had to giggle at long silences, like when Mus told the class about his mother being so ill. But not now. Now I didn’t need to laugh.
‘I don’t have anything. I don’t own anything,’ my mother said suddenly from the pantry. ‘My husband took everything. I haven’t got anything, I own nothing.’ We only heard her voice. As if she wasn’t there. Only that voice. From that dark hole.
‘What’s this then?’ Crazy Aunty held up our vase. A mother-of-pearl vase in pride of place on our TV. The vase took on a different colour whenever the light changed. Sometimes blue, sometimes yellow, but mostly white. We never put flowers in it. I don’t know why not. Too beautiful to use.
‘Nothing you see here is mine,’ the voice said. ‘That’s just a vase. That vase isn’t mine.’
‘And what’s this?’ Crazy Aunty held up a porcelain plate that was on display next to the vase. A white porcelain plate with a fine gold edge. It was a plate we had never eaten off. We didn’t know why not. We ate with our hands and with chopsticks. We ate off newspaper, we ate off paper plates with our eyes fixed on that porcelain plate.
‘That’s not mine either, that plate doesn’t belong to me,’ said the voice. Crazy Aunty held up two small boxes with tubes of sunscreen. They were arranged next to the porcelain plate. Two magnificent tubes of sunscreen still in the box: Clinique. Clinique. A word I read several times aday as I walked by.
‘Nothing’s mine. My husband left and took everything. We eat with our hands and use them to protect our faces from the sun too. None of that stuff’s mine. But if you want to take it, take it,’ the voice spoke from the darkness.
Crazy Aunty inspected the vase, the plate, the tubes of sunscreen. She looked at the men and the men shook their heads.
‘This won’t be enough,’ said Crazy Aunty. ‘The vase, the plate and the sunscreen won’t be enough.’
‘But I don’t have anything else,’ the voice said softly from the pantry. Then it was quiet for a moment. Nothing else came from the black hole. The two men looked at each other. I hoped that my mother had disappeared. That there was a secret exit in the pantry or that she had temporarily dissolved into thin air. The three of them looked around the room, as if following a fly.
‘I have Nhung!’ Mother said as if she’d just had an idea. ‘Take Nhung. She must be worth more than all the rest put together.’
Crazy Aunty inspected me. The two men turned away from the pantry and looked me over. The small snakeman crept towards me. He picked me up, swung me from side to side a couple of times and moved me up and down. My breath caught high in my throat. I felt his dry skin scraping over my thighs, my stomach shrank the way strange clouds sometimes shrink – very suddenly and very sharply, as if it knew something terrible was about to happen. I held my breath until my lungs were about to burst.
‘It’s only for a while,’ the voice from the pantry said. ‘Not forever. Nothing is forever. Everything comes back. You take her away and you bring her back. As soon as the stars are in your favour. As soon as you get good cards again you can just bring her back. I’ve got a premonition, you’re going to get good cards soon. You have to. Nobody can be unlucky all the time. But please go away. Take the men with you.’
The small man raised me a couple more times and put me back down on the floor. He shook his head. He looked at Crazy Aunty and shook his head.
‘I bet the garden,’ Crazy Aunty said. ‘Nhung won’t be enough.’ My mother started to cry and cursed me for being too light.
‘Okay, fine! Take my bloody garden then,’ Mother said.
Crazy Aunty had just lost our back garden in a game of blackjack. Or more exactly; she had wanted to bet her own back garden, but that no longer belonged to her, she had lost it long before playing roulette, and was thus forced to bet ours. When she got an eight of clubs instead of an ace, the bookkeepers of the Chinese mafia added our back garden to their list of possessions.
This was how property was redistributed. Crazy Aunty was only here to take care of the paperwork. The documents were pulled out of pockets and details were adjusted. Since Mother refused to come out of the pantry, Crazy Aunty gestured for me to sign.
‘I don’t have a signature yet,’ I told her. She looked at me quizzically.
‘I don’t have a signature. I’m still practising it,’ I said.
‘Just write your name.’
I looked past Crazy Aunty at our garden. The garden with a view of the neighbours’ lime tree, where our jasmine blossom crept gently over the hedge like little ants in summer and where the wisteria trickled down the walls like purple rain. The garden that had moved with such fury when the seasons still existed but was now weighed down by a thick layer of snow. I didn’t want to give away the garden, which wasn’t even ours.
We couldn’t lose something that wasn’t ours, the garden belonged to the council, I knew that. Nothing here belonged to us. Father had explained that to me more than once. But still I didn’t want to give the garden away. If the birds knew the garden was no longer ours they would stay away, the jasmine blossom would retreat back over the fence. It would be bare and dead.
I stared at the lined paper, crudely torn out of an exercise book, but in use for a long, long time. This record of property and distribution had been in use since before I was born. Crazy Aunty had put it on the table. The fingerprints of debtors and creditors were still visible. At the top right I saw a shaky signature, once added by a trembling hand. I ran my eyes over the page and saw chairs that had been hocked and crossed out. I saw kilograms of mangos that had been wagered and crossed out again. I saw the names of boys and girls noted and crossed out. They, apparently, had not been too light. They were worth something. Worth betting. As valuable as a garden at least. Everything was crossed out. Except at the bottom. The back garden of 196 Rhododendron Street. Our address. Not yet signed.
No, I shook my head. I’m not going to, I thought. I looked at the garden. A buzzard circled high over the bare lime tree and I began to cry. It was already March and not so much as a leaf or a green shoot in sight.
‘Get out of our house,’ I told Crazy Aunty. ‘I’m not writing anything. I don’t have a signature. I don’t have a name to write down.’
The two men looked at each other. Crazy Aunty gave a small nod. They walked towards me. I didn’t care. I would see how big and tough they were, better that than having them take everything. But the men didn’t touch me, they walked straight past me. They kept walking towards the pantry, towards my mother.
The big man switched on the light in the pantry. Mother had climbed into the rice barrel, only her head was showing. The man pulled my mother out of the barrel and held both of her arms tight against her back. The grains of rice slid down her arms and legs to the floor. Mother didn’t resist, she only looked at me imploringly.
The smaller man joined them. He grabbed my mother’s hair in one fist as if making a ponytail then jerked her up off the ground by her hair. I screeched with fright. My mother’s legs dangled awkwardly in the air. She was crying.
Crazy Aunty slid the piece of paper under my nose. No, I shook my head again. I tried not to block out the sound of my mother’s tears, landing loudly on the rice.
‘See what kind of daughter you’ve raised,’ Crazy Aunty screamed into the pantry. ‘See what kind of person she is. It’s better to settle things at once. A daughter like that isn’t going to help you. She’s useless.’
We need to stand up to scum, I told myself. We have to stand tall and banish them. It’s the only way.
‘See what kind of person she is,’ Crazy Aunty repeated. Mother would understand and be proud of my staying strong.
‘Yes,’ Mother said suddenly to Crazy Aunty. I looked up at Mother. ‘I see,’ she said. ‘She is nothing. My daughter is worthless.’
I felt tears rising. The kind of tears that burn a hole in your heart. I took the piece of paper and wrote the name Nhung after the words: Back garden of 196 Rhododendron Street. I wrote slowly and precisely to give Mother time to change her mind. That was the moment I thought of Father. He would think I was a coward and be disappointed in me for not being braver, for not doing a better job of looking after us all while he was gone. Mama is scared, I thought, she doesn’t know what she’s saying. With trembling hands I crossed my name out again and gave the piece of paper back to Crazy Aunty.
‘I’m not putting my name on anything,’ I said.
The man let go of Mother. She fell to the ground with a quiet thud. A big dusty cloud of white pepper and all those other damn spices blew through our living room. The powders floated down on our table, on the flowers, over the sofa, over the stove, it was like nothing had been cleaned for years. For a moment there was nothing but white everywhere. Only when it had settled did I see the men again. Everyone had turned grey in an instant.
Crazy Aunty walked up to me. Slow and menacing. She brought her face, which looked even more frightening with all that pepper, up close to mine. I thought she was going to say something, her hot breath blew in my face, but she didn’t speak. She stuck her index finger in her mouth, licked it, and wrote in the white pepper dust on the table with her wet finger. Carefully I followed her handwriting with my eyes. An E, an F, an R.
REFENGE was written in the dust.
‘Don’t think this will be the end of it,’ she said. ‘I’ll be back. And then you’re going to think, if only I had been a little smarter that day. Then they wouldn’t have got my mother.’
The men led the way out. When Crazy Aunty closed the door behind her a last remnant of white pepper blew through the room.
Translation by David Colmer